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Reimagining Our Schools 1.1

The sudden stop we are all experiencing should cause two reactions. First is reflection. There is a sad luxury in stay-at-home orders within a stalled economy. We suddenly have time, and are thrust into the opportunity, to take stock. What worked? Where are our strengths? What things are we doing well? Conversely, what’s not working or what is crying to be changed? Rarely does the rapid pace of our society offer such a gift. We need to seize it. I’m convinced that when we finally turn the corner on this thing, we’ll be better for taking the time to honestly reflect.

The second reaction should be acknowledgement. The evidence is clear. When we finally are able to leave our homes and resume degrees of normalcy, we’ll quickly discover that the world, and the ways we interact with it, are fundamentally changed. We need to accept it and prepare for it.

I will continue, through this and future posts, to encourage education leaders and practitioners to seize this unprecedented opportunity to reimagine our schools. Simply re-opening what we closed is not only an opportunity missed, it represents a failed obligation to address many areas of inadequacy in our current educational system. We have a chance to get things right in assuring an education kids deserve. This should be a time of hope, innovation and vision.

Last week I focused on tapping into the rich asset at our fingertips, the experience and perspectives of our students. This week . . .

Grading and Reporting

Our abrupt change in how we instruct our nation’s children has forced educators to confront some ongoing issues and to implement immediate innovations. With nearly 70% of American school-aged children receiving instruction at the kitchen table, it became abundantly apparent that our traditional numeric or alphabetic grading system was not going to be manageable. That shouldn’t really surprise anyone. We’ve known for a long time that our grading and reporting systems are fraught with problems.

There are two primary challenges with the traditional grading and reporting practices we have used for decades in public education. First is inconsistency. The basis for assigning a letter grade or a percentage mark is frequently arbitrary and can vary greatly from system to system, school to school, and even teacher to teacher. Consequently, we cannot rely on the validity of these marks. Because they are unreliable and inconsistent, the second challenge with our traditional system is that grades really don’t communicate anything of value. We think we know what an “A” grade means. But, do we really? Does it accurately describe what the recipient knows? Does it articulate where the learner is on the trajectory of his or her learning? Does it offer the student any meaningful guidance or feedback? Sadly, the answer to each of these questions is “no.” That “A” grade only accomplishes two things: it gives the student bragging rights and it creates a sorting mechanism for college and university admissions officers. While convenient, neither of these results suggest a reliable and useful system of grading and reporting.

In “normal” times, when change is voluntary, we adopt a “we’ll add this to the list” attitude and never seem to get around to addressing it, whatever "it" might be. But, when confronted with an emergency, we find the will to act swiftly and decisively. As disruptive as it has been, this pandemic has forced us into new directions, directions that I would argue may present improvements or at least “food for thought” over previous practices. In response to distance learning, many school districts across the country have adopted new approaches to reporting academic progress and achievement. The New York City school system has implemented a type of Pass/Fail system for the remainder of the current academic year. Students will receive one of three grades: “Meets Standards,” “Needs Improvement” or “Course in Progress,” indicating that more time is needed to complete required coursework. That’s it. Is it a perfect solution? Probably not. But, could it be an improvement over our prevailing practices? It could very well, indeed.

As reported in the August 18, 2017 edition of Quartz: “Mary Lawlor has taught sixth-grade English for more than 20 years. For almost all of that time, she hated giving grades.The high-achievers always freaked out, lining up at her door in tears because they wanted higher marks. ‘It bred all these perfectionists [who] were not resilient and just focused on a number,’ she said. The slackers retreated to the playground, continuing not to care whether they learned much or not. So when Rowland Hall, a small private school in Salt Lake City, Utah where Lawlor teaches, decided to scrap the traditional A-F grading scale, and replace it with a reporting system based on what the school thought kids and their parents should know about their students’ learning, she was thrilled. ‘Grades were not tied to learning targets,’ Lawlor said. ‘They discouraged risk-taking.’ ”

Three key points bear emphasis in Mary Lawlor’s observations:

  1. Letter grades bred a culture of perfectionists “who just focused on a number.”

  2. Less motivated students continued “not to care whether they learned much or not.”

  3. Letter grades “discourage risk-taking.”

Taken together, Lawlor’s thoughts on letter grades do not paint a pretty picture. We need for students to be resilient, to find the intrinsic motivation to do well and to assume the risks necessary to improve.

Returning to NYC’s new grading system: perfect or not, at least these marks communicate something useful to the learner and their parents. They each have some degree of information that can facilitate a conversation between the student and the teacher. “Needs improvement” could lead a student to better understand where they are in the process of meeting the standard. Each of these comments/grades are hopeful. And, in crafting these grading comments, NYC school leaders have eliminated any suggestion of failure. The traditional “F” grade is replaced with supports and interventions that are appropriate for an individual child. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, or maybe I’m simply an optimist who will always stand for the best interests of kids, but I hear “good job” or “not yet, keep going, you can do it” or “let’s spend a little more time on this” in these grades. They have the potential to be empowering and aspirational, rather than being punitive or deflating. They may even serve as more reliable indicators of actual achievement.

Does it make sense to continue using the current grading and reporting practices if they work in conflict with what we know kids need? Quite plainly, it doesn’t. As we reimagine our schools, we must thoroughly reimagine how we provide useful feedback and meaningful critique for kids and their families.

It's a component of The Education Kids Deserve.

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